When Dave and I were first married, we arrived home flushed and tan from our Hawaiian honeymoon to our adorable apartment just as the calendar was turning over to December. I think I may have mentioned stopping at a grocery store en route from the airport to snag our Christmas tree, so far behind schedule had our late-November nuptials put us. He probably laughed, but then he looked at my face and realized, ohhhh…and thus our first marital conflict was born. Just kidding. Well, sort of.
To say that we were raised in different liturgical traditions wouldn’t be accurate, because we were definitely both raised Catholic. But let’s just say that one of in-laws were balanced on ladders stringing lights and hanging tinsel before the Thanksgiving turkey had even hit the table, while the other were peacefully contemplating which Christmas tree of the 4 remaining on the lot on Christmas Adam (Christmas Eve eve, y’all. It’s the best non-feast day of the entire year) would suffice for the family evergreen.
So we were at an impasse. I think because we were like 17 days man and wife and because he is a wonderful husband, I won the great tree debate of 2009. Obviously we bought a real tree, and obviously we strung and lit that sucker up before the wax had melted on our Advent candles for that year, and obviously it died a cruel, painful death after a few days in our dry, indoor Denver air. But whatever, we kept that bad boy vertical until Epiphany and then kicked it to the curb in an explosion of dry needles and pine pollen. And possibly sparks of actual fire, because it was d.r.y. and dead as hell.
The second year came, and the second dead-before-Advent-commenced Christmas tree followed. Also, Dave accidentally caught our mantle and part of the garland and stocking situation strung there on fire. Because that dead Christmas tree was prime firewood and not to be wasted. (Our landlord never found out, and we managed to scrub all the soot off the walls by the time our lease was up.)
By last year’s Christmas, our third of wedded bliss, we had finally devised something of a blended family tradition all our own, and by golly, it looks as though it has stuck. Don’t get me wrong, the tree still died a cruel and miserable death far too early into the season, but it wasn’t killed by overzealous decorating or liturgical precociousness. It’s still just really freaking dry here.
Christmas 2011, pregnant with John Paul and probably in need of a longer hemline.
So our new ‘tradition’ was born. This year it feels even more effective, if you will, because I have had to be super picky about what we can commit to and what I can reasonably handle with a giant belly and the looming specter of yuletide newborn sleeplessness. Hence, lowered expectations. Here’s how it breaks down:
Pre-Advent/last week of November: Begin and (mostly) finish Christmas shopping. We’re blessed in that both our families are content with simple ‘Secret Santa’ exchanges, so each Dave and I are responsible for buying gifts for 1 member of each of our original families, if that makes sense. So that’s a total of 4 gifts. In addition to that, we get each other one gift each, and we sometimes decide to give something additionally to our parents. The boys get two gifts each this year, we decided, because we basically bought them the earth and then some in our relocation back to the US earlier this year, and we have a pretty minimal toy policy around here. I also assemble the necessary ingredients for an Advent wreath and we make some kind of game plan for how we’re going to keep the penitential aspect of Advent in the forefront. This year it worked out that we could both go to Confession before Mass this morning, so that was perfect.
First Sunday of Advent: We light up the first candle in our wreath (we’re going to try to light the appropriate candle every day and say a very, very brief prayer each day this Advent, we’ll see how it goes), and we go out and buy the tree. It’s sitting decked out with lights in our living room, but we compromise and only light it on major feast days and during Sundays in Advent until Guadete (the pink candle) Sunday. Then it’s lights ooooooon till Santa touches down. We also set up our Nativity set, leaving baby Jesus hidden somewhere else in the house, and putting the Wise Men east of the stable (like that?) and Mary and Joseph heading in from the west side. The cows are already chilling crib side. And speaking of Santa Claus…
I still believe. I also love St. Nicholas, so this year for the first time, we had the boys write letters to Santa/St. Nick (totally interchangeable in my twisted mind) asking for prayer intentions to be brought before the baby Jesus and okay, a couple present requests. It’s not theologically perfect, but it’s better than secular Santa who has basically been relegated to the role of kiddie crack dealer.
We’ve also told them that if they put their shoes out Thursday evening on the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day, he will take their letters when he drops off their treats. He’ll also leave them a little note of encouragement for how they can help prepare their hearts and our home for baby Jesus’ arrival. How cool is that? No pretend trip to the mail box or postage to the North Pole. Bam.
(One year I concocted an elaborate Christmas carol/epic poem of sorts involving Santa-ala-St. Nicholas, bishop and mighty defeater of heretics, capturing and subduing with his sleigh-driving whip all our notorious dissenting “Catholic” politicians. Nancy Pelosi was turned into an enslaved reindeer and forced to pull the sleigh as part of her penance. It was all very disturbing to my audience, I’m sure.)
Second Sunday of Advent: We add ornaments to the tree. By this point our parish usually has their giving tree ornaments up too, so we select a family to sponsor and take a really, really fun trip to Target where we buy presents for ‘our’ family. I love the way our parish does this ministry because 1. you get to choose the family size you can sponsor (we like to pick a family the same size and in close ages to our own kids) and 2. you get to wrap the presents you buy for them. We also like to write Christmas messages to our family and maybe this year I’ll actually think to write down all their names so we can pray for them all season. Work in progress here. We generally spend a decent amount of money doing this, which is part of the reason our gift-giving within our own home is limited. It helps bring balance to the season for us, and I hope it gives the kids a more realistic view of what Christmas really stands for.
Third Sunday of Advent (Guadete): Rejoice! He’s coming! Lights on, presents all wrapped and stashed, remaining shopping odds and ends finished up, and perhaps another trip to the Confessional if necessary to prepare for Christmas.
Fourth Sunday of Advent: We top the tree. This year we’ll need to buy a new star, and actually our 8 foot Costco beauty is already scratching at the ceiling, but I’m sure we’ll come up with something. From here on out it’s game time, and any remaining details will most definitely need to be checked off the list, because I plan on being in labor at this point. We shall see.
Christmas Adam: (it’s a real holiday in my family) Christmas begins a teensy bit early. Crank the speakers, it’s time to play Christmas music and drink awful mulled wine (gluvine, if you’re being technical.) I am going to try really hard not to listen to Christmas music during Advent this year, to the extent that I can control it, and I’m looking forward to breaking that little ‘fast’ on the eve of the big Eve. Get it? Christmas Adam.
Christmas Eve: Candlelight Mass, stockings hung, Mary and Jesus arrive at hotel nativity, and kiddos are slammed to bed in anticipation of baby Jesus’ arrival, heralded by Santa himself. Candlelight Mass is probably wildly optimistic this year, but we’ll see how much longer this gestational situation can drag itself out.
Christmas Day: Party up in heeeeeere. Mass in the morning if we didn’t make it the night before, followed by stockings and presents. I’ll be celebrating with adult substances for sure, either via a narcotic dripping into the space surrounding my spinal column or a huge glass of wine perched on my lap, along with my already 2-week-old daughter who is definitely going to be sleeping through the night. Ha ha haaaaaaappy holidays to you all. That’s how we do. Congrats if you made it to the festive end.
p.s. Thank you for your prayers for baby Lily. She is improving every day so keep them coming!